Rachel Reeves: We can all follow Jo's example to tackle loneliness

AFTER the death of my friend and colleague Jo Cox, it fell upon the rest of us to carry on her inspirational work.
Jo Cox.Jo Cox.
Jo Cox.

One of the causes that Jo felt most passionate about was her campaign to tackle the crushing loneliness felt by so many people.

Her grandfather was a postman in Cleckheaton and would often take Jo on his rounds with him when she was a child.

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As she watched him chatting happily with people as he delivered their post, Jo was struck by the fact that the conversation was, for some people, the only human contact they would have all day.

Determined to tackle what she called a “shocking crisis”, Jo had already taken the first steps towards setting up a Loneliness Commission before she was murdered as she served her Batley & Spen constituents last June.

She was also working with The Yorkshire Post and its award-winning “Hidden Epidemic” campaign to help those battling loneliness.

After Jo’s death, I was moved to be asked by her family and widower Brendan to take on her work on loneliness.

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Following Jo’s example of putting aside party divisions, I am chairing the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness with Conservative MP Seema Kennedy.

On Tuesday, we will launch the Commission in the House of Commons in the official residence of Speaker John Bercow when the many charities and other groups backing the campaign will join us.

Over the year ahead, our Commission will work to highlight the devastating impact loneliness can have on people of all ages and from all walks of life.

But Jo always felt it was never enough just to raise awareness of an issue. That’s why our Commission will also be a call to action with the aim of helping people realise how they can be part of the solution – whether that means talking to a neighbour, visiting an old friend or just making time for a cup of tea with someone living on their own.

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We will publish a manifesto at the end of the year outlining what action we believe the Government should take to help end the misery of loneliness.

There are already some great examples here in Yorkshire of how we can all help combat the problem and end people’s sense of isolation.

In my constituency of Leeds West, Bramley Elderly Action runs an innovative telephone befriending scheme where volunteers phone people for a chat each week, and themed “restaurant nights” where those in need of some company can meet and talk over a meal.

For those who enjoy some company and a walk, the New Wortley Community Centre holds regular events.

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I have worked hard to stop library hours being reduced in Armley and Bramley – not just because of the obvious educational value of libraries, but also because of their vital role as meeting places for the community.

However, the huge scale of the problem of loneliness and the threat it poses to the physical and mental health of thousands of people means we urgently need action on a national as well as a local level.

Around two-fifths of all older people – almost four million men and women – cite the television as their main form of company. According to research, a lack of social connections poses a similar risk of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

And, more than nine million people privately admit they are “always or often lonely”.

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But loneliness is not just something that blights the lives of the elderly. Those who suffer are just as likely to include those who have been widowed or separated, a single parent or someone who lives alone.

Suicide is the biggest killer of men aged under 45, with men nearly four times more likely to take their own life than women.

As Jo said: “Young or old, loneliness doesn’t discriminate.”

We are fortunate to have many great organisations backing the Commission including Action for Children, Age UK, Alzheimer’s Society, The British Red Cross, The Campaign to End Loneliness, Carers UK, The Co-op, Eden Project Communities, Independent Age, Refugee Action, Royal Voluntary Service, Sense and The Silver Line.

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They will be involved in highlighting how loneliness affects different groups including older people, children, those with disabilities, carers, refugees and parents.

As well as the personal toll that loneliness takes on people’s lives and their emotional wellbeing, there are also the huge costs of treating problems with mental health and depression that
are so often triggered by loneliness.

Jo often told me about meeting people in her constituency
who might not have spoken to anyone for a week. It was heartbreaking for her and she was determined to do something about it.

The best way we can honour her memory is to carry on her work to tackle loneliness and live up to the promise we made at
her memorial service to “love like Jo”.

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You can help make a difference today by dropping in on a friend, neighbour or relative who you think might be lonely or calling them for a chat. Let’s work together to end loneliness.

Rachel Reeves is co-chair of the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness and MP for Leeds West.